No time to be complacent about HIV

Over the last few years we have begun to see some amazing news from London’s largest sexual health clinic. At 56 Dean Street there has been an 80% fall in the number of new HIV diagnoses since 2015 – something they’ve put down to intensive testing, high levels of people living with HIV being on successful treatment (which means they can’t pass on the virus) and the anti-HIV drug PrEP. Similarly, stats from Public Health England show that last year saw the first drop in new diagnoses in the UK since the very start of the epidemic. However, despite this amazing progress, this is no time to become complacent about HIV.

Similarly, stats from Public Health England show that last year saw the first drop in new diagnoses in the UK since the very start of the epidemic. However, despite this amazing progress, this is no time to become complacent about HIV.

For one thing, use of PrEP – a pill you can take before sex that offers near protection from HIV – has mostly been from individuals buying generic forms of the drug online. After protracted efforts from activists, clinicians and community groups to make PrEP available on the NHS, a new England wide trial of 10,000 people is a welcome step, but one that still falls short of a full NHS rollout. Similarly, PrEP implementation is also being piloted in Wales, while the news in Scotland is better, with PrEP now available on the country’s NHS.

It’s also worth noting that the greatest reduction in diagnoses has been seen amongst gay and bisexual men in London and it’s not the same story all over the country, or among all groups. The UK’s black African communities are also impacted disproportionately by HIV, but have lower rates of testing, higher rates of late diagnosis, and have yet to see any widespread uptake of PrEP.

The UK’s black African communities are also impacted disproportionately by HIV, but have lower rates of testing, higher rates of late diagnosis, and have yet to see any widespread uptake of PrEP.

One of the key reasons for this difference is the heightened impact of HIV stigma, which can be a huge barrier to people accessing testing or discussing it with their partners – let alone thinking about using an option like PrEP. It’s vitally important that we continue the fight against stigma to ensure that no one is left behind in the advances we are finally making in bringing down infections.

Stigma around HIV is often fuelled by myths about how the virus is passed on (no-one has ever caught the infection from spit, or from a toilet seat!) or from outdated knowledge about the realities of living with HIV. Effective treatment not only means that someone can lead a full and healthy life, but also means they cannot pass the virus on to their partners. We know that out of date beliefs about how the virus is passed on have a negative impact on the lives of people living with HIV, which is why we at Terrence Higgins Trust launched our Can’t Pass it On campaign over the summer. As the name suggests, there is now robust evidence to show that people living with HIV on effective treatment can’t pass on the virus – and we want everyone to know.

We’re closer than ever to beating HIV but we won’t get there until we end the stigma that continues to surround the virus. We have all the tools we need to stop new HIV infections, it’s about utilising them effectively and bringing all communities along with us. As we as a community look ahead to World AIDS Day on 1 December, it’s important to remember all those lost to HIV – but also redouble our efforts to end new infections in the UK. I’ll proudly be wearing my red ribbon as I do every year and hoping that someone asks me why.

Justin Harbottle

Justin Harbottle

Justin Harbottle is business and service development manager at the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Justin Harbottle

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